Nostalgia for the Light (***)

I have always been of the firm belief that not enough people grasp the importance of understanding history.  What is too commonly seen as simply a collection of interesting stories or dull facts and figures of the exploits of notable dead (usually white) men should be more rigorously examined and treasured as a key to the soul of our very identity.  The old saying regarding those who do not study history may be trite but rings with truth in all corners of the world.  Perhaps this is because not enough attention is paid to the profound impact that history has on individuals.

In Patricio Guzmán’s poetic and heartfelt documentary Nostalgia for the Light, he takes us on a journey to the Atacama Desert, the driest region on Earth.  Here, the lack of humidity provides astronomers with a perfectly translucent view of the night sky and a view of the furthest reaches of the universe.  The landscape itself also preserves some of the earliest traces of pre-Columbian man and how they lived.  The desert also, sadly, was a preferred area for the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet to bury the now-mummified bodies of thousands of political prisoners.  Guzmán interviews a variety of astronomers, archaeologists, and the relatives of those “disappeared” by Pinochet searching for their remains, and melds their passions together into a reverie for the past that is passionate, introspective, mournful yet optimistic.

Guzmán does not immediately jump into the political context of his film, focusing at first on the deeply committed efforts of the Atacama astronomers and the impressive technology of the telescopes they use to unlock the secrets of space and the stars.  One of the more interesting early insights gleaned from Nostalgia is that astronomers, by the very nature of space and time, are historians.  Even if by a millionth of a second, the effects of any action do not take place until after the action itself.  For example, the light and heat we get from our sun is not the light and heat it’s emitting right now, but emitted approximately eight minutes ago.  This becomes even more dramatic the further we go.  When we see a star that is, say, one million light years away from us, that means that the light from that star has taken one million years to reach us.  We’re not seeing the star as it is now, but as it was…one million years ago.  This insight shows how astronomers are not just bookkeepers of cosmological objects/events; they are chroniclers of the earliest history of our existence.

This revelation, along with the film’s gorgeous montage of distant galaxies and stars, soon gives way to a sobering irony.  Despite the wonder of discovery professed by these Chilean astronomers, and the inspiring survival of our ancestors in this seemingly unlivable place, their country has yet to come to terms with its very painful immediate history.  Due to the various obstructions and cover-ups from Pinochet’s regime, 20th and 19th Century Chilean history is a frustrating collection of unresolved questions and blind spots.

No matter what, she will never give up her search...

Guzmán does his best to piece together some of Pinochet’s atrocities through anecdotal tales from those who survived him, all of which are heartbreaking and inspirational in equal measure.  One man named recounts his time in a mining colony – which were basically concentration camps – and how he invented simple devices to observe and, in a sense, escape from his brutal incarceration.  Another man tells us of how he drew and memorized the dimensions of the mining camp so that he could record them for posterity when he finally escaped.  Each story is tied directly into a desire to preserve and understand the past, of gaining knowledge of history as a form of personal and spiritual power.  By far the most affecting portion of the film are the women of Chile who sift through the desert to find the remains of their loved ones.  Both of the women interviewed here know that their undertaking is almost impossible, yet they steadfastly hold on to the hope that one day their brutally murdered relatives will be found and given some measure of peace after death.

The film presents itself elegiacally, drifting in a dreamlike state between the secrets of the stars and the earth, carefully considered in the style of an art film by Guzmán and gorgeously lit by Katell Djian.  It focuses itself on the mechanics of astronomical study from time to time, but not in a manner that ever feels bogged-down or overly academic.  In fact, the opposite effect occurs: I was drawn in by the ingenious simplicity of telescopes and their construction, particularly the rudimentary ones built in a horrifying prison.

My only complaint is that the poetic feel of Nostalgia for the Light is disrupted somewhat by pushing its analogies a little too hard and a little too often.  The connection between these different people and their goals for history are clear enough that the movie didn’t have to spell it out for us, and sometimes the connections feel like grasping at straws (one in particular, drawing a comparison between one man’s life and the history of Chile, feels especially forced and unnecessary).

But that small flaw is not nearly enough to counter this passionate fusion of science, faith and human insight within this modestly helmed but moving documentary.